Television 'Big Love'

Hank Stuever previews 'Big Love': Season 4 is a tangle of story lines

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Big Love" asks a lot -- too much -- as the polygamist family drama begins a fourth season Sunday night. It's one of those shows you always mean to catch up to, but Heavenly Father help you if you start now.

Playful disorder is fine if you want a show that rapidly evolves and convolutes itself like some highbrow, irony-laced telenovela, with subplot piled upon subplot, deaf to all the story-line bombshells that relentlessly keep detonating around the characters. (And then what happens? And then this happened! And then what? And now what?) After all, we watch these boutique cable dramas not only for their alacrity but their power to confound. We admire their sharpness, their swift pace.

But enough. American television writing now needs its own equivalent of the slow-food movement, an antidote to all the OMG! pills we've swallowed each time someone turns up dead or divulges some sordid secret. What exactly is the rush? (Fear of boredom? Which leads to cancellation?)

We viewers are revelation addicts, and thus share some of the blame for the fact that there are only two kinds of dramas to watch these days: One is the gentle-on-the-mind crime procedural, which open and closes a murder case with clockwork scripting and microscopic DNA clues in the carpet fibers. Or, as with "Big Love," we must endure elaborately tangled epics that strive over distant seasons to match the narrative sweep of "The Sopranos" and "The Wire," and instead wind up catering to viewers (and writers) who have obsessive-compulsive plot disorders.

In this season's first two episodes of "Big Love," I count no fewer than 12 separate subplots vying for attention, including the discovery of the villainous prophet Roman Grant's frozen body, protagonist Bill Henrickson's divine inspiration to run for state Senate (but first to get himself and Barb, wife No. 1, back into good graces with the Mormonesque church), and Nicki's (wife No. 2) desire for Bill to become the righteous new prophet of the Juniper Creek polygamist compound.

There's also Margene's (wife No. 3) success as a TV shopping-network personality; the opening of the Henrickson family's much ballyhooed casino, in cahoots with the Blackfoot tribe; conniving Alby's cruising for secret sex with -- big gay oopsie -- the state-appointed trustee of Juniper Creek's seized fortunes; and multiple FBI raids (they are as frequent to this show as scenes of potato salad being made in the kitchen and whoopie being made in three different bedrooms). Periodically, "Big Love" becomes yet one other show, with elderly Lois and Frank Henrickson's comic attempts to kill each other, which should be called "Spry vs. Spry."

This is either an amazing feat of operatic storyboarding or a ludicrous mess. HBO probably wants us to regard it as brilliant layering. But viewers who have three previous seasons' investment deserve "Big Love's" original (and more linear) sense of twisted heart and dark metaphor. Even the actors look alternately confused and pooped, empty shells of the characters they used to play.

* * *

There is much about "Big Love," created by Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, that deserves our big love. Only a year ago, this was still a show that was merely a complicated story, inviting viewers to suspend their belief (and their prejudices) for a tender if stressful journey into the suburban polygamous marriage of four Utahns. Sauced with marital taboo, "Big Love" could claim to be a nuanced exploration of faith, family, suburbia and personal liberty. It had (still has!) compelling characters with which to build something lovely and disturbing.

The problem is that we fans can be an awfully forgiving congregation when a premium show like this is dispensed from on high: Critics tell us it's good, and it feels good for a while, and then fatigue sets in. (See: "Mad Men.") Yet, being dutiful completionists, we draw closer in and flatter ourselves with the word "niche." We follow these shows anywhere -- even catching up on past seasons with our Netflix accounts whenever we come down with a three-day flu.

But friends, "Big Love" has led us into a desert. Poor Bill Paxton, who plays the show's divinely deluded protagonist, Bill Henrickson, seems in these new episodes like his head is about to explode. He leaps from scene to scene, always in transit; Paxton has apparently decided to overplay the stressfulness in all this.

The people in "Big Love" now speak more in expository plot furtherings than in sharp dialogue. There's no acting to do, only the most opaque style of explaining, which explains not much at all. Margene (the always electrified Ginnifer Goodwin) must draw out details of her husband's political ambitions during their panting, spoon-style marital relations. "Not now, Margie," Bill tells her, in his perpetual rush to complete each of his scenes, none of which lasts longer than a page or so.


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